Paul Newman: Forget the Spotland pies, here's why Hill is king of The Dale

The Football League Column
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The Independent Online

Rochdale's fans have learnt to be patient ever since their first application to join the Football League, submitted exactly a century ago, took a full 10 years to be accepted. Not much, to be frank, has happened at Spotland since. In their 90 years as members of the League, Rochdale have been promoted just twice and all but six of their seasons have been spent in the competition's bottom division.

While The Dale have had some famous managers, including Harry Catterick, Bob Stokoe, Eddie Gray and John Hollins, they have rarely attracted attention on the pitch. Their highest finish was in 1970, when they ended the season ninth in what is now League One, and they have never gone beyond the fifth round of the FA Cup. Rochdale were League Cup runners-up in 1962, but that was in the days when the big clubs turned their noses up at the competition.

If Spotland has a reputation among supporters as a good place to visit – "Three pubs located at the ground, a great range of pies on offer and not a bad atmosphere to boot," according to the Football Ground Guide – that may also be because away teams have usually fancied their chances there.

Times, nevertheless, are changing. After four successive top 10 finishes in League Two, Rochdale achieved their first promotion for 41 years last summer. Having made a moderate start to life in League One, they have gone from strength to strength in recent weeks. Unbeaten in 10 matches since the start of the year, they lie ninth, just four points off the play-offs and with games in hand.

The man behind the Rochdale revival is Keith Hill (below), who recently celebrated four years in charge. Of the current crop of managers in the lower divisions only John Coleman (Accrington Stanley), John Still (Dagenham & Redbridge), Paul Tisdale (Exeter City) and Sammy McIlroy (Morecambe) have lasted longer.

Hill has just won his fourth manager of the month award and was League Two's manager of the year last season. A former central defender who played more than 150 games for Rochdale, he joined the coaching staff on his retirement, became youth team coach and stepped up as manager after Steve Parkin left in December 2006 with the team facing a relegation fight. Hill and his assistant, Dave Flitcroft, took Rochdale to Wembley, where they lost in the play-off final to Stockport County, in their first full season in charge. Promotion came last summer, despite an end-of-season blip, Rochdale finishing third after losing seven of their last nine games.

A modern manager who puts an emphasis on fitness, nutrition and analysis, Hill has made some astute transfer dealings, though his most striking success has been in bringing the best out of players. Nobody has thrived better than the captain and team talisman, Gary Jones, a 33-year-old midfielder who has made a club record 408 League appearances and is leading scorer this season with 13 League goals.

"The last four years have been like a whirlwind," Jones told the Football League's website last week. "Keith's come in and he's changed not just the first team but the whole club around, from underachievers to being on the verge of the League One play-offs. He's done an unbelievable job. When he took over we were 22nd in League Two and four years later we're on the verge of a play-off spot in League One."

While Hill is still talking in terms of earning enough points to avoid relegation, the prospect of going up to the Championship is far from fanciful. Two other clubs have enjoyed successive promotions from the bottom two divisions in recent years. Southend reached League One via the play-offs seven seasons ago and went up again as champions a year later, although they came straight back down again the following season. Peterborough achieved a similar feat, finishing second in League Two and League One in successive seasons in 2008 and 2009, although they too lasted only a year in the Championship.

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